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10 years in the making, ASEAN to sign consensus on migrants’ rights in summit

Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar. Photo courtesy of Presidential Communications Operations Office

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) finally takes a step forward to fulfill its commitment made a decade ago to protect migrants’ rights.

The ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which the Philippine government called the “centerpiece” of its chairmanship this year, will be signed Nov. 14 during the 31st ASEAN summit.

“We are so pleased and honored that we are going to close, basically close the circle with this instrument.” Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar said Nov. 10 in a press briefing.

This comes 10 years after the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers was signed on Jan. 13, 2007 in Cebu.

A key feature of the document is for “all countries to afford mechanisms” for migrants such as labor contracts and legal representation, Bolivar said. Countries also reaffirm their commitment to provide social protection to all migrants, including undocumented ones.

The consensus likely affects an estimated 6.89 million intra-regional migrants in ASEAN’s 10-member countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand host 96 percent or 6.5 million of total migrants in ASEAN, most of them low-skilled and undocumented, working in the construction, plantation and domestic services, a recent World Bank study said. (See ASEAN can’t leave unskilled migrants out of integration – report)

ASEAN has drawn flak for its failure to create the instrument, due largely to contentions over its nature as legally binding or not, and if it would cover undocumented migrant workers.

Until now, whether or not the ASEAN consensus will be legally binding remains unclear.

Bolivar, when asked at the press briefing, said: “There is a provision for future cooperation. I think that is probably why they call it a consensus instead of just an agreement.”

Asked if the consensus has sanctions for violating states, Bolivar told reporters after the briefing that the document will have mechanisms to settle disputes among countries.

“Definitely, there are mechanisms to settle the disputes,” he said, but did not expound on what these would be.

A legally binding instrument would put in place mechanisms for migrant workers in the region, as well as sanctions for violating states. As it stands, the 2007 declaration is non-binding.

“That is so generic,” former Labor Secretary Nieves Confesor told VERA Files, of the 2007 declaration. “It’s easier to reach consensus on principles. It’s harder to deal with implementation.”

Confesor cited the case of migrant workers from Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar who were reportedly employed by Thai fishing boats and later arrested for illegally fishing on Indonesian waters.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, news reports say, has already urged Indonesia to help its jailed nationals, apparently victims of human trafficking.

While the instrument is being written, ASEAN member-states like the Philippines and Singapore have advanced their migrant policies through bilateral meetings, Confesor said.

Filipinos in Singapore, for instance, are in better working conditions now than before, thanks to the countries’ “clearly defined institutional responsibilities,” according to the World Bank report.

More Filipinos are now employed in financial services, and less as domestic workers, said Confesor, who was labor secretary in 1995 when domestic worker Flor Contemplacion was convicted of murder and executed in Singapore.